Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2020-21, where Last Word On Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2020-21 Stanley Cup pick. Today the series continues with the 2020-21 Central Division.
2020-21 Central Division
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
Nick Mancini Writes:
Despite losing Nikita Kucherov for at least the regular season, the Tampa Bay Lightning will find themselves atop the standings once again. With Steven Stamkos fully healthy and Brayden Point rapidly developing into an elite playmaker. The ‘Bolts’ will be able to manage without Kucherov’s scoring prowess. Not including winning the Stanley Cup this past season, the good times keep rolling down in Tampa. With the team resigning, Anthony Cirelli, Erik Cernak, and Mikhail Sergachev at extremely team-friendly deals. The Lighting is poised for another run at Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Returning to the 2020-21 season with an almost identical team, not much will be slowing them down as they are bound to dominate the central division. Benefitting greatly from the division they are in, versus the East Division. The Lightning has a straight shot to the Final Four of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
2. Carolina Hurricanes
Alex Metzger Writes:
The Carolina Hurricanes come into this season with more high hopes. Another year with a really solid roster, look for the Canes to make some noise in this 2020-21 Central division. Often lost in the shuffle of a packed Metro division, the Hurricanes benefit from being in a division that may have less high-end teams in it. This roster has one of the more underrated forward cores in the league. Guys like Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov are budding stars. They’ve also done a great job in surrounding those guys with talented players such as Teuvo Teravainen and more recently, Vincent Trocheck.
However, the forwards aren’t what drives this team along, that would be the absolutely stacked defence core. Arguably the best in the league, the Canes are loaded from top to bottom. Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin are two of the league’s best defencemen. Adding to that depth are guys like Brett Pesce. This is a team that has a very solid roster from top to bottom and should provide a big challenge each night.
Their biggest question will be in goal. Can the tandem of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer take them on a deep run? That will ultimately be the question that gets answered. This is the second-best roster in the division, look for them to be lots of trouble all throughout the season.
3. Dallas Stars
Luke Flannigan Writes:
The COVID-19 outbreak amongst the Dallas Stars squad will certainly throw complications into their preparation. And the Stars already have two significant injuries. Losing Tyler Seguin, their top goalscorer for five of the last seven seasons and Ben Bishop, their starting goaltender, are blows that a team that struggles to score could do without.
The form of Anton Khudobin, therefore, becomes a crucial factor to the Stars’ potential. Just an offseason removed from their remarkable run to the Stanley Cup Final. However, Khudobin has been one of the best goalies in the NHL for the past two seasons. He has recorded the highest Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) value of anyone over the last two seasons. (31.03)
This is of course without even mentioning the talent within the Stars’ D-core. John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen will be expected to drive the offence with their puck handling prowess. Meanwhile, Jamie Oleksiak continues to be a stellar defensive defenceman on a team that has perfected the craft.
What will also be intriguing is the increased opportunity within the lineup for Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov. They finished first and second on the goal-scoring depth chart last season. Both forwards could be heavily relied upon, to the point where Hintz could begin the season as the Stars’ number one centre. Gurianov’s speed and Hintz’s wicked release are both exciting prospects for Stars fans moving forward.
Despite the setbacks, it is hard not to see the Stars making the playoffs. The team’s success is down to supreme defence which hasn’t changed since last season.
4. Nashville Predators
Luke Flannigan Writes:
Ever since their trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, the Nashville Predators have been in a state of gradual decline. However, the geographical division realignment for the 2020-21 season has worked in their favour. Shipping out some very strong overall teams in exchange for Columbus and Detroit makes the Central division weaker. Even if they did have to add Tampa Bay. On paper, Nashville probably ranks as the fourth-best club in the division.
During the offseason, David Poile expressed an intention to get nastier in the bottom six. This is on the back of Nashville ranking 23rd in hits per 60 among the 24 playoff teams last season. He acquired Erik Haula, Nick Cousins and Brad Richardson while Nick Bonino, Craig Smith and Austin Watson all departed. This strategy relies heavily on a bounceback from Nashville’s top-six forwards. Although, the fact that this overly-exposes the major trading and signing flops (to-date) of the Poile era is extremely risky. Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen haven’t yet filled the skates of the top-tier centre that Nashville has been desperately craving. Meanwhile, the Kevin Fiala breakout in Minnesota was coupled with Mikael Granlund’s continued regression last season.
The plus side for the Predators is that there is scope for the long-awaited Eeli Tolvanen and OHL-standout Philip Tomasino to get NHL minutes this year. Both are the biggest prospects outside of goaltending in the Predators’ system.
It is fair to say that this could be the final year before disenchantment sets in for the Smashville faithful. However, between the teams vying for the final playoff spot in the Central division (Blue Jackets, Panthers and Predators), Nashville boasts the most talent throughout those respective rosters. I imagine that will be more important in a season that resembles more of a sprint than a slog.
5. Florida Panthers
Nick Mancini Writes:
The Florida Panthers will be an intriguing team to follow this season. Marking Bill Zito’s first year as the Panthers General Manager. Things have looked good on paper so far. Once it gets going on the ice, though, things could completely change. Zito has made the team tougher and much harder to play against with his additions over the offseason. On the offensive side, besides replacing the lost goal-scoring with Anthony Duclair, the ‘Cats’ are also adding skilled, physical, and gritty depth with Carter Verhaeghe, Alexander Wennberg, Vinnie Hinostroza, Patric Hornqvist, Ryan Lomberg. While on the back end, Radko Gudas, Markus Nutivaara, Noah Juulsen, and Gustav Forsling brought in. The Panthers will not be the easy ‘point night’ opposing teams used to look forward to playing against.
Looking at all the additions Zito has made, the Panthers will find themselves amid the playoff hunt all season long. With Carolina, Dallas, and Tampa comfortably ahead of the rest and Chicago and Detroit rebuilding. All that is left is Columbus, Florida, Nashville battling for the fourth and final playoff spot within the division. The Panthers are known for having inconsistent seasons if they cannot take advantage of the abbreviated season early. They will find Nashville slipping past them to steal that fourth spot.
6. Columbus Blue Jackets
Luke Flannigan Writes:
To think that the Columbus Blue Jackets competed at all last season, given their injury woes, is highly impressive. At the season’s pause in March, the Columbus Blue Jackets had lost 352 man-games to injuries which ranked first in the entire league.
This season, however, there is further disruption which is causing uncertainty within the Blue Jackets squad. For starters, Gustav Nyquist is out to start the season with a shoulder injury. Furthermore, top-six centre, Pierre-Luc Dubois has expressed a desire to leave the club despite signing a new contract. Last season, Dubois led all Blue Jackets skaters in the regular season (18 goals and 31 assists) and postseason points (four goals and six assists). What will bring perhaps a modicum of comfort to the Blue Jackets faithful is that the quickest way to get out of a market is to play elite-level hockey in order to get the bidding started.
On the other hand, the excitement amongst Blue Jackets fans will centre around the chance to see more of their young offensive core. Bjorkstrand has exhibited elite-level scoring and Alexandre Texier will hopefully kick on this season in a bigger role. This is without even mentioning new-signing Max Domi. The former Canadien is a playmaking centre who should gel well with Cam Atkinson on the first line.
However, with under two weeks to prepare for this season and a team that relies on playing a style that is greater than the sum of its parts, it could be a tough year for the Blue Jackets. The expectation is that the more defensively reliant teams may struggle at the season’s inception.
7. Detroit Red Wings
Nick Mancini Writes:
The Detroit Red Wings offseason did not go as many had planned. After finishing the 2019-20 season with one of the worst records in NHL history. The Red Wings continued to go on to “lose” the first overall pick that was Alexis Lafreniere. Nonetheless, they did receive a dynamic playmaker in Lucas Raymond. The Red Wings made some moves along the offseason during free agency, but again, nothing close to what the people had anticipated. As one of the most cap space teams, fans across the NHL were waiting for a blockbuster acquisition. Instead, bringing in Vladislav Namestnikov, Bobby Ryan, Troy Stecher, and Thomas Greiss. The Wings surround their young guys with the right people while adding more experience at a low price.
Looking at the 2020-21 Central division season, the Red Wings will, unfortunately, find themselves at the bottom of the standings. While no one is expecting a Stanley Cup in Detroit any time soon, many hope the team can at least put up somewhat of a fight this season. Instead, it will be entertaining to wait and watch for Anthony Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi and Dylan Larkin to take that next step in their games. While guys like Robby Fabbri, Filip Zadina, and Filip Hronek will be the ones who need to prove to everyone they belong within the league.
8. Chicago Blackhawks
It may come as a surprise to some to see the Chicago Blackhawks here. Lots of people have the Red Wings slotted as the worst team due to their disastrous year. However, there are a couple of factors for that. Detroit’s improvement, but also Chicago decreasing in talent. Seeing both Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford leaving from last season is something that can’t be understated. Collin Delia and Malcolm Subban are one of the most inexperienced tandems in the league.
On top of that, Jonathan Toews being out for an unspecified amount of time is also alarming. Factor in that they also traded away Brandon Saad in the offseason and there seems like a path for Chicago to really struggle this year. Their centre depth is concerning and their defence core is really relying on someone like Adam Boqvist to step up. If he can’t, that is a big concern too. Overall, it seems very hard to see the Blackhawks anywhere near the playoffs this year. Unless lots of things go right, they may be near the bottom of the division. So much so that we have them finishing last. The points they take against Detroit when playing head to head will be the difference here. Although, a top pick isn’t a bad thing for the Blackhawks.
That is our 2020-21 Central Division preview. Let us know what order you think each team may finish in come the end of the season!